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Conservatism on Top Down Under

Meet Tony Abbott, the likely next prime minister of Australia

Sep 2, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 48 • By FRED BARNES
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Melbourne
Absent a stunning reversal of fortune, Tony Abbott is a good bet to be the next prime minister of Australia. He’s the head of the Liberal party, which is expected to capture Parliament from the Labor party in the national election on September 7. In today’s politics, Liberals are misnamed. They’re actually the conservative party in Australia. So if all goes well, Abbott will become one of the world’s leading conservatives.

Tony Abbott campaigning in 2010

Tony Abbott campaigning in 2010

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Abbott, 55, is an aggressive partisan once described as “one of the great head-kickers of Australian politics.” Karl Rove isn’t his only American admirer. Abbott is a social conservative who opposes abortion, is leery of gay marriage, doesn’t hide his Catholic beliefs, and even defends the monarchy.

In Australia—where the political, intellectual, and journalistic classes tend to be very secular—Abbott has been called a religious zealot, a throwback, and “anti-woman.” When he dismissed same-sex marriage as “a fashion of the moment,” he was dubbed a “20th-century man.” That’s not a compliment. Deputy Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, a Laborite, summed up the attacks on Abbott with a quip: “In your guts, you know he’s nuts.” It wasn’t meant entirely as a joke.

Abbott insists he has no plans as prime minister to restrict abortions. Still, his view is that abortion “should be safe, legal, and rare—and I underline rare.” Australia’s 100,000 abortions a year, he said in a 2004 speech, are “this generation’s legacy of unutterable shame.”

Abbott’s campaign doesn’t focus on social issues. He doesn’t even mention them unless asked. But social issues stalk him. Abbott recently interviewed American singer Katy Perry on the radio. He asked when she would be touring Australia. “Oh, come on,” she responded. “That’s not a political question. Let’s talk about gay marriage.” She said voters should speak out against Abbott’s position on gay marriage.

Abbott is a victim of liberal intolerance. He has suffered for his social views and religion. Covering the campaign, I heard it said that Abbott “wears his religion on his sleeve.” But he does little more than acknowledge his Catholicism when that subject arises. It’s often noted in press stories that Abbott studied to be a priest. He did, in his 20s, before dropping out of seminary.

A notion propagated by his critics holds that if the Liberal party—allied with the small National party in what’s known as the Coalition—should win the upcoming election, it will be despite Abbott. If the party were led by someone without Abbott’s baggage, the theory goes, it would rout Labor by a larger margin and give Liberals a lopsided majority in Parliament.

This is pure speculation. We’ll never know if it’s true. What we do know is Abbott, a Rhodes scholar and ex-newspaperman, brushed aside one Labor prime minister, Julia Gillard, and has put his party in a position to defeat another, Kevin Rudd. This is no small achievement.

Nor has Abbott been unnerved by upheaval in Labor’s ranks and the dramatic return of Rudd from exile. The who’s up and who’s down of Australian politics can be hard to follow. But in June, Rudd ousted Gillard, who had replaced him as Labor leader in 2010, to become prime minister for the second time. Gillard abruptly retired. Out of the blue, Abbott had a new and presumably more competitive opponent.

Rudd hit the ground running to the right. He outflanked Abbott on immigration, vowing that no “boat people” would be allowed into Australia. He said the carbon tax would have to go and promised reforms to end labor union corruption. The Australian edition of the Spectator said this reflected Abbott’s success. To win, Rudd figured he had to be tougher than “his conservative nemesis.”

And those weren’t the only surprises in the candidate switch. Dumping Gillard in favor of Rudd was a desperate move by Labor to increase its chances in the election, all the more so because Rudd, 55, is heartily disliked by members of his own party. Their experience with him as prime minister from 2007 to 2010 was an unhappy one, marked by frequent clashes and Rudd’s flakiness.

Laborites told me how “destructive” Rudd had been to the party as prime minister. I assumed they felt safe speaking ill of Rudd to a foreign journalist. Then I discovered they had said the same, or worse, to Australian reporters and columnists.

Yet Rudd is personally popular with the public. That’s his value. He’s a master of social media. He tweets to almost 1.4 million followers, texts, and posts on Facebook almost nonstop. Fluent in Mandarin, he’s popular in the Chinese community. Rudd is an attention grabber. And Labor is gambling he can save them from a catastrophic defeat by appealing to younger voters and those who pay minimal attention to politics. Labor party leaders “didn’t want him,” says Brian Loughnane, Abbott’s campaign manager. “But when the Titanic is going down and panic sets in and there’s only one lifeboat .  .  . ” Rudd was seen as the only alternative to certain defeat with Gillard.

Initially it seemed to work. For three years, Liberals had led Labor in polls. But with Rudd’s return, Labor pulled even with Liberals, and Rudd’s personal approval was roughly 20 percentage points higher than Abbott’s. By the way, the media shorthand for Rudd’s reentry is the “Ruddstoration.” In 2007, Liberals were crushed by a “Ruddslide.”

But the Rudd surge turned out to be “a Romney bounce,” says Greg Sheridan of the Australian, the national newspaper. Like Mitt Romney’s spike in polls after his first debate with President Obama, it quickly faded. As of last week, Labor trailed Liberals, 54-46 percent. Even worse, the view of Rudd as trustworthy has dropped from 73 percent to 50 percent since his return. Abbott was seen as trustworthy by 57 percent. He also had a double-digit lead over Rudd on handling the economy.

As a debater, Rudd is regarded as superior to Abbott. But he unexpectedly failed to shine in their first televised skirmish before a panel of media questioners on August 11. In his closing pitch, he made a cogent argument for how he would deal with an economy in transition. Abbott had what Geoff Kitney of the Financial Review called a “killer comeback.” Rudd had said the same in the 2007 campaign and his plans had come to nothing, Abbott said. And they would again.

Abbott was less glib and more disciplined. He made his few points crisply. He seized on Rudd’s campaign slogan, “a new way.” If you “want a new way,” Abbott said, “you’ve got to choose a new government.” He said this repeatedly. Abbott closed with this: “I am ready, my team is ready, our plans are ready, our nation is ready, and it’s now up to you to choose real change.”

Rudd may not be ready. His estrangement from his party would be a liability in governing. Yet that relationship may be beyond repair. When he announced the date of the election, he didn’t mention Labor once. A week later, Foreign Minister Bob Carr was Rudd’s stand-in at a Sydney event of the influential Australian-American Leadership Dialogue. In his speech, Carr didn’t mention Rudd.

Liberals have the advantage of numbers in the election. The pickup of a single seat would give them a parliamentary majority of 76—that is, counting the seats they now hold or are held by independents from strongly Liberal districts. To form a new government, Labor must gain at least five seats, a daunting task when the momentum of the campaign is going the other way.

Australian politics is different. Liberals and Labor members of Parliament aren’t pals. They don’t socialize after hours. But neither are they as polarized as Republicans and Democrats. Abbott and company are less conservative than Republicans in Congress, Labor members a bit more centrist than Democrats. And while they quibble, they fundamentally agree on a balanced budget (preferably with a surplus), free trade, and a restrictionist immigration policy. They’re all internationalists. They embrace ties to the United States. They split on environmental issues and labor-management relations, but not bitterly.

The parties are like the GOP and Democrats of a few decades ago, when they overlapped ideologically in the center. Perhaps a quarter of Liberals in Parliament are left of center. They’re reminiscent of liberal Republicans. Labor has a right wing. When Communists dominated the left, Labor’s right-wingers were strongly anti-Communist. That defined them. Also, dozens of Labor members of Parliament agree with Abbott on social issues, particularly abortion. They just don’t sound off about it.

Australian election campaigns are different too. They’re blessedly shorter, only five weeks from the moment the date of an election is set to voting. Endless races to nominate candidates for prime minister don’t exist. The incumbent prime minister and the leader of the opposition run only in their districts, not nationally. There’s no presidential race because there’s no president. However, the two party leaders act during campaigns as presidential candidates. They’re the central figures who meet in one-on-one TV debates. Voting is mandatory, which means get-out-the-vote drives, like President Obama’s sophisticated effort last year, are unnecessary. So are appeals to the party base. Since everyone votes, the only sensible strategy is to appeal to the center.

Here’s the bad part: Some of the more unpleasant aspects of American campaigns are alive and well in Australia. Take the obsession with gaffes. Once the media discover one, they crave more. Making fun of a candidate, especially if it’s someone you loathe, is fun. It’s contagious. Just ask Mitt Romney.

In the second week of the campaign, Abbott said this at a Liberal rally: “No one, however smart, however well-educated, however experienced is the suppository of all wisdom.” It was either a malapropism or a slip of tongue. He obviously meant “repository.” That didn’t matter. It was instantly designated a gaffe. Abbott, in the eyes of the media, became gaffe-prone. The dragnet to find more gaffes was on.

The next day, he was asked by a reporter what Liberal candidate Fiona Scott had in common with an earlier female candidate. “They’re young, they’re feisty, I think I can probably say they have a little sex appeal,” he answered. The media pounced, tracking down feminists and political foes to pan Abbott as a sexist for having cited Scott’s sex appeal. (Abbott is married with three daughters.)

Then came Abbott’s comment about gay marriage. Spokesmen for gay organizations, plus a few Labor members of Parliament, were rounded up to criticize Abbott for the error of his ways. A few days later, Katy Perry was heard from. Abbott was unrepentant. In a second debate with Rudd last week, he suggested his party might support gay marriage some day, but he never would.

That debate prompted commentators to ask and answer their favorite post-debate question, the same here as in America: Was there a knockout blow? There wasn’t. There never is. It’s a dumb question. Important things happen in debates but not because a killer punch is landed. Rudd said Abbott was winning the election, a rare admission by a candidate who’s behind. Rudd acted like the challenger, Abbott the confident and steady prime minister. Abbott tried a Reagan line. “Are we doing better now than we were six years ago?” It flopped.

In one respect, the Rudd-Abbott struggle is like Obama versus Romney. It’s very, very negative. In Rudd’s statement announcing the election, he denounced “wall to wall negativity,” “negative personal politics,” and “the old politics of division.” Then he launched into a thinly veiled attack on Abbott. Rudd has to attack. His years as prime minister were marked by failed policies, flip-flops, and broken promises. So he ignores his record. Abbott cites it as evidence of what three more years with Rudd at the helm would produce.

Among Rudd’s targets is Rupert Murdoch, who began his media career in his native Australia and is still a political force here. Rudd charged that Murdoch is using his newspapers to help his “mate,” Abbott, to win. The Australian, in particular, has been tough on Rudd. TV news and major papers in Sydney and Melbourne have been kinder to Rudd. Murdoch also owns newspapers in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide.

Rudd and Abbott have no U.S. equivalents I could think of. Rudd is frenetic, always in motion. He sleeps four hours a night. He’s been described as having “a baby face, a full head of hair, a motor mouth, and a drive for power.” While campaigning, he exudes charm. People are drawn to him. In personality comparisons with Abbott, he comes out ahead.

“The problem is Rudd’s determination that whatever position he holds on any issue is cast as a soul-identifying question of moral absolutes,” the Australian’s Sheridan, who’s known Rudd for decades, wrote. Rudd has core beliefs. “Yet, astonishingly, they keep changing,” Sheridan wrote. For years, he opposed gay marriage. Now he argues for it in grave moral terms. “If the election were a referendum on political authenticity, Rudd would lose,” Sheridan said. In the Australian last week, columnist Janet Albrechtsen called Rudd a psychopath—of the political, not the criminal variety. The Spectator labeled him a “complete and utter fraud.”

If Rudd is a sprinter, Abbott is a long-distance runner—indeed, he’s a fitness nut who competes as a triathlete. Rudd talks. Abbott fights. One of the most riveting political battles in Parliament pitted Abbott against Gillard when she was prime minister. In 2012, Gillard claimed sexism was behind attacks on her. She and Abbott clashed when Abbott accused an appointee of “sexist and misogynist” behavior. “I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man,” she fired back. “I will not.” Abbott “says that people who hold sexist views and are misogynists are not appropriate for high office. Well, I hope the leader of the opposition has got a piece of paper and he is writing out his resignation.”

Rudd’s insistence that Abbott wants to “cut, cut, cut” government programs gives a false impression of Abbott’s views. As prime minister, he would spend less than Rudd, but he’s no libertarian. In the United States, he would qualify as a big government conservative. His plan to provide parental leave payments of up to $75,000 a year dwarfs Rudd’s own. But he didn’t flinch when Rudd savaged his proposal in last week’s debate.

What happened after the debate was revealing. Rudd zipped off to still another campaign event. Abbott lingered to chat with undecided Brisbane voters who’d been invited to question the candidates. The questions were mostly unsympathetic to Abbott. But when a straw poll was taken, he beat Rudd, 37 to 35.

For Americans, does it matter who wins the Australian election? The answer is yes, but probably not much. Bipartisan support for a strategic alliance with the United States has been a fundamental tenet of Australian politics for decades.

With its longstanding fear of an invasion, Australia regards the U.S. tie as a pillar of its defense. That won’t change. And the alliance allows America to disperse its projection of power in the Pacific. The need for that won’t change either. In fact, the Aussie-Yank tie was strengthened in 2011 with the establishment of a U.S. Marine base in Darwin, on Australia’s North Coast, the city closest to China. The Chinese were displeased. Too bad.

American military leaders admire Australia’s reliability. Since World War II, Australia has deployed troops in every American war—Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan. Aussie special forces played a critical role in Iraq, entering the country prior to the American invasion to destroy Scud batteries primed to unleash a missile attack on Israel. In Afghanistan, they joined efforts to kill Taliban fighters.

So what’s the issue? One is the decline in defense spending by the Labor government. Gillard and Rudd are solid supporters of the alliance with the United States. They criticized the American intervention in Iraq without trying to withdraw Australian troops. Kim Beazley, the enormously popular ambassador in Washington, strongly defended President Bush and the war.

But the defense budget declined each year on Labor’s watch. And Americans have begun to press for higher spending. Senator John McCain and former deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage, both major players in military affairs, have done so. On this matter, Abbott is more likely than Rudd to take their advice. But Rudd might have an advantage in dealing with the Obama administration. A brainy ex-diplomat, he’s more Obama’s type than the pugnacious Abbott.

As Liberal leader, Abbott would simply have a freer hand in dealing with the United States on military and other issues. His party has no anti-American wing. The Labor party does. Its left wing was once dominated by Communists. That’s no longer the case. But it is obsessed with America’s influence and opposes nearly every tie to Washington, especially the ones that require Australia to provide troops. Rudd might not agree with them, but he’d have to take their views into account.

And on trade, Abbott would probably be more proactive in seeking free-trade agreements, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement now being negotiated by a dozen nations.

Australians are worried. The conference of smart people from Australia and America I attended in Sydney was off the record. But I don’t think I’m violating that ground rule by saying this was the message from the Aussie side. They’re worried about their economy. They’re worried about national security in a region where China is big and mean. They’re worried about being ignored by their most important ally. They feel alone and sometimes forgotten.

Americans roll their eyes when they hear this. After all, Australia hasn’t had a recession for 21 years. Thanks to zero national debt and solvent banks, Australia escaped the Great Recession. For more than a decade, it has experienced an extraordinary mining boom, chiefly by exporting iron ore and coal to China. This has boosted the economy, enriched the country, and flooded the government with tax revenue.

A month ago, Rudd declared the “boom is over.” China’s growth rate is slowing, which translates into fewer resources imported from Australia. Unemployment in Australia, a mere 5.7 percent, is projected by government economists to rise to 6.2 percent in coming months.

“This election will be about who the Australian people trust to best lead them through difficult new economic challenges,” Rudd said. But it’s not. Neither Rudd nor Abbott has outlined a comprehensive plan for a “new” economy, and the press doesn’t seem terribly interested in the subject. This is good. Australians only have to look to the United States to see the pathetic result of government schemes for creating an economy “for the 21st century.” Markets do a better job at this, without extensive government interference.

Australians like America. That’s why 60,000 of them live in Los Angeles. They were encouraged by President Obama’s announcement in 2012 of “America’s Pacific century.” The idea was to pay more attention to the Far East. It hasn’t happened. Australians feel the United States is too easily distracted. They cite, as one example, Secretary of State John Kerry’s quixotic effort to revive Israeli-Palestinian talks. Australians may have an inordinate fear of invasion, including by uninvited “boat people,” but with 23 million people, they are badly outnumbered in Asia. They need constant reassurance that America cares about them as friend and protector. No matter who wins the election, whether Rudd or Abbott is prime minister, I think that’s the least we could do.

Fred Barnes is an executive editor at The Weekly Standard.

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